⚠ TRIGGER WARNING: Mention of child sexual abuse. ⚠
If this is a trigger/landmine for you, please stop reading now.
The sound of rain outside the tent grew softer, and the tent flap was opened, dissipating the heat within. Lecherous howls of the drunk men rang out from the camp in the deep of the night, while soldiers with arms around one another played guessing games. Lei Changming was so hot that he undid his clothes and laid his chest bare. His chest was tanned, with plenty of scars and a tuft of chest hair that grew unchecked like weed beneath his clothes. Drunkenly embracing the woman in his arms, he sang and danced, and even called out to Shen Zechuan, “Brother Shen, get up!”
At this point in time, the flap moved, and several servile and submissive soldiers entered to place down the food.
Shen Zechuan partially opened the little bamboo fan and stood up. The candle flames in the tent were not bright enough. He raised his hand to block the side of his face at an angle with the fan, then looked at Lei Changming and said softly, “What dance does the chief want to see?”
Lei Changming felt that Shen Zechuan was really good-looking. He was not only astonishingly beautiful when seen this way, but also so gorgeous that he overshadowed and outshone everything else in the room. Lei Changming drank the wine to embolden himself, then shoved the woman away and pounced on Shen Zechuan. He did not expect to trip over the wine jar at his feet and cut a sorry sight as he fell at Shen Zechuan’s feet. It was in this way Lei Changming sprawled on the ground and gasped for breath that reeked of wine. He wanted to grab the hem of Shen Zechuan’s robe, but he grasped at nothing but empty air. He let loose a chuckle and began to laugh.
“Smell nice.” Lei Changming stretched his neck out and sniffed the air hard. “You really smell so good. Brother Shen, come on. Help me up. I’ll dance with you. Dance whatever you like! Damn, so this is what others mean by the fragrance of a beauty!”
Shen Zechuan looked askance at him and watched him crawl on the ground like a pot-bellied hairy spider as he chased after the corner of Shen Zechuan’s plain, white clothes. For some reason, Shen Zechuan felt an extremely sudden wave of abhorrence wash over him in this absurdly comical moment. His hatred, which had broken free of its dam, was just like magma, so scalding that his fingers, which had been gripping the fan, went white.
His teacher told him to leave Qudu and return to Zhongbo. Yet the Duanzhou, which he once pined for, was successively handed over to men like these. Lei Changming and the others were just like personification of malice. They were the evil ghosts who had taken over the state.
Shen Zechuan lightly rested his bamboo fan at the side of his lips. He let out a smile and slowly took a step back. In the din under the flickers of ghostly shadows, he bent over slightly and said, “Come over.”
Lei Changming originally wanted to climb to his feet, but now, it seemed like he could not care less as he crawled on his hands and knees towards Shen Zechuan. In his trance, he felt that what he was seeing was not a human being, but an untouchable, nocturnal demon. He salivated and swallowed his saliva before he realized that Shen Zechuan had a tiny white jade stone on his right ear. Someone had carefully polished that jade into a perfect sphere, and it looked exceedingly gentle on Shen Zechuan’s earlobe under the glow of the light. It was the only accessory he had on his entire body, other than his bamboo fan.
“Brother Shen…” Lei Changming said with urgency. “Quick, help me up.”
The soldiers set down the plates with their heads lowered. Then, with trays in hands, they stepped aside as if they were preparing to leave. The shouts and laughter of the men and women were like the drizzle which, in Lei Changming’s ears, became another seemingly elusive world. He seemed to be a drooling jackal that had been chained and pulled towards Shen Zechuan by an invisible force. The tent was all upside down. Lei Changming felt a little dizzy from drinking too much.
Lei Changming chanted as though he was paying religious homage.
Shen Zechuan. Beauty. Brother Shen.
Lei Changming haphazardly tore away at his own opened clothes, feeling as if the scars on his chest were burning. He had never been like this before. His eyes were clearly opened, yet he seemed to be asleep. He was still crawling. It seemed as if he had finally gotten near to Shen Zechuan’s feet. He tilted his head up and let out a vague laugh as he tried to tug at the hem of Shen Zechuan’s white-as-clouds robe.
“What a temptress…” Lei Changming reached out a shivering hand and murmured ingratiatingly at Shen Zechuan, “How ravishing can you be…”
Lei Changming killed people like flies in Zhongbo, grabbed countless women, and coerced many children. He was the kind of person who seemed to love beautiful and exquisite people by nature. He wanted to tear all those who were delicate, untainted, and even ignorant into bloodied, tainted masses. He committed much evil, and he even thought that ghosts would all take a detour on seeing him. He did not fear karma at all—they had done wrong, and yet they were still able to sleep well with dreams of limitless wealth and glory. They would not think back of all those bodies they had trampled into pieces. All those were like the clouds—people they once could not touch.
Lei Changming’s vision was somewhat blurred. Shen Zechuan’s face gradually became more and more vague. On the contrary, that round little jade stone increased in clarity until it turned into a little jade stone that he seemed to have seen before.
Lei Changming once hoodwinked a child in this way. He pinned down the other party’s limbs, and violated the other party in the pitch-dark tent. He still remembered drinking that day too. The scars on his chest were burning like this too. Those hands and legs he was gripping were so thin and slender that Lei Changming even had the thought to break them in his stimulated state. He bent and twisted them hard and watched as that rosiness turned pale until it eventually turned into a mess of rotten flesh.
Panting, Lei Changming pounced at Shen Zechuan several times and attempted to grab the latter, but failed. He shook his head hard. The cacophony of human voices gave him a splitting headache. He hastily crawled forward and bumped into a small table at the side. Wine and dishes splattered all over his half-naked body. He shouted, “Shen—”
The tent reflected in Lei Changming’s eyes suddenly righted itself. Blood splashed over his cheeks. He opened his mouth wide. His body was still frozen in place, but his head had already gone rolling. It knocked against the wooden leg of the small table, its expression so vivid that it was nauseating.
The laughter in the tent came to an abrupt stop. The candle flames were still flickering. Everyone still maintained their initial actions, but they looked like they had all gone stiff and were already dead. Wind blew through the opened flap – revealing the drizzling scene outside where night was like the creeping silence – and extinguished the last of the candle flame.
Shen Zechuan placed Yang Shan Xue, which he had pulled out from under the cushion, and wiped it in silence. Fresh blood, removed from the blade, left behind a long red scar on the cotton cloth. He wiped it very slowly. No one saw when he had drawn the blade, so they could only appreciate the sight of him wiping it patiently.
Shen Zechuan inexplicably started to laugh. This laughter seemed to be the most unbridled one he had ever let loose these days. He kept the blade, held up his folding fan again, and stepped on Lei Changming’s head to correct its position.
“Dancing, huh?” Shen Zechuan lowered his eyes and said to Lei Changming. “Are you even worthy?”
◈ ◈ ◈
The soldier who was about to pee had only just let his pants down when someone sliced his throat and dragged him into the undergrowth. Small groups of Lei Changming’s soldiers gathered at the foot of the watchtower to play dice, unaware that their own men were silently dwindling in numbers.
“Tell the mess cook to save some meat and serve a plate to us. This rain falls like diarrhea. It’s so unbearable. It’ll be too hard to bear if we don’t drink a little wine!” The squad commander tossed the dice and lifted his head to yell at the man behind, “You go. Yes, you. You’re getting in the way by standing here!”
With that, he lowered his head again. They put their heads together and chewed on the meat jerky as they tossed the remaining bit of copper coins they had left in the waistband of their pants into the bet, all of them hoping to get lucky.
“Ain’t this hand way too cursed?!” One of them slapped his palm as if he was swatting at bad luck, then wiped and rubbed it on his thigh. He said, “I’m not playing anymore!”
“No!” Another one tugged at him. “That’d be no fun! We’re entering the city tomorrow. Don’t you need money to visit the brothels and get on the pleasure boats? Give it another go! You might get lucky!”
“Bah!” The one who wanted to leave spat at the face of the other party. “With our chief’s reputation, do we still need money to enter the city and visit the brothels? Slutty whores don’t deserve to ask for money. We are already doing them favors by patronizing them! Who knows if they will spread some filthy diseases to me?! I’m not playing! Those in the tent seem to me like they are going to stay up all night. With the state they have drunk themselves into, I doubt they can even fight a battle tomorrow. I’m going to sleep for a few hours.”
As soon as this person turned around, he bumped into someone else. He hit his head on the armor and heard a “thwack”. The collision dazed him, and he blanked out for a moment before he started to push and shove at the other party. He cussed, “The fuck you blocking—”
There was a muffled sound of stabbing. This person did not even have the chance to speak when he fell forward with a blank stare. The forward trajectory of the body was blocked by the other party, and it fell back towards the crowd, who were still shaking the dice, and crashed into them. The dice promptly tumbled to the ground. The men were already in a bad temper from having to take the night watch, so they grabbed the man’s collar, wanting to hit him. But when they turned him over for a look, they saw those eyeballs of his bulging out in a glare—the man was already dead!
The Imperial Army swiftly drew their blades. Without giving these bandits the chance to react, they charged forth and cut them down. Blood splattered onto armors. Tantai Hu wiped his face and shouted, “Kill!”
Without the tip-off from the patrol squad, the soldiers that had already gone to rest in the camping grounds were caught off-guard by the Imperial Army. Leading his men, Tantai Hu charged into the tent and covered their mouths and noses, and stabbed them one at a time, leaving behind a mattress of crimson red. The surviving bandits ran out of the military camp in a panic. They did not receive any orders, and so they ran around flustered in the rainy night like headless chickens. The campsite was already completely surrounded by the Imperial Army. The moment those wily old foxes who had hung out in the martial fraternity all year-round saw those drawn blades, they instantly surrendered without a fight and crowded together as they waded across the muddy waters to kneel and beg for mercy.
Xiao Chiye spurred his horse over. Lang Tao Xue Jin trod its hooves before the crowd of people. The gyrfalcon descended from the sky and landed on Xiao Chiye’s shoulder, bringing along a gust of bitterly cold wind as it closed up its wings. Xiao Chiye’s well-built body was like an ink-black cloud in the rainy night that blotted out the light. His back was to that faint and distant candlelight in the tent, while his gaze was like a blade so cutting that those prying glances vanished in a fluster.
Tantai Hu was doing a headcount.
Xiao Chiye turned his horse around. His shoulders were already drenched. Meng tilted its head to look askance at that deadly still military tent, as if it knew that there were bloody fleshes inside for it to eat. Shen Zechuan was not in the tent. He was standing outside, carrying an umbrella with his head lowered to look at his own bloodstained boots.
Xiao Chiye leaned down, and Meng hopped onto Shen Zechuan’s shoulder. Shen Zechuan raised his head and met Xiao Chiye’s eyes.
“This young master,” Xiao Chiye lifted a finger and lightly scraped it across the tip of Shen Zechuan’s nose. “Why are you standing here alone in the rain?”
Shen Zechuan spread his little bamboo fan open to show it to Xiao Chiye. He said a little sulkily, “My fan is dirty.”
There were a few splotches of blood splattered on the feebly-opened fan, like red plums spilling over the words. It was unlikable, no matter how one looked at it. What’s more, these words were written by Xiao Chiye himself. Ever since this fan was gifted to him, it never left Shen Zechuan’s side, just like that blue handkerchief.
“The way those drops are splashed is pretty unique.” Xiao Chiye’s gaze never left Shen Zechuan’s face. He said, “Give this fan to me. I’ll make you another one.”
Shen Zechuan inserted the fan at a slanting angle into Xiao Chiye’s back collar and nodded his head. Xiao Chiye smiled at him and asked, “Was the feast delicious?”
Shen Zechuan shook the umbrella open to shield both of them and answered, “Passable. It’s too noisy.”
Xiao Chiye dismounted and took over the umbrella. He only covered Shen Zechuan, leaving half of his own body exposed outside in the rain. He lifted the tent flap with one hand and surveyed the interior. After a period of time, he said, “There’s something odd with this camp.”
Shen Zechuan raised his hand to cover up Meng, who wanted to fly inside, and said, “I don’t think he’s the same Lei Changming who is rumored to be able to subdue the two prefectures of Duanzhou and Dunzhou.”
Both of them were still talking when they suddenly saw Tantai Hu hurrying over to them. The blood on Tantai Hu’s body had yet to be wiped away. He did not look too good as he paid his respects to both men and said, “Master, their numbers don’t tally at all. I asked some squad commanders, and they couldn’t even say how many men they have under them. It was only after I pressed them further that I learned that they are all bandits Lei Changming had just taken in. They are not men he brought along from Mount Luo!”